Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Facts about the Film Version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman


One glance through the Ernest J. Gaines Center's archives reveals the overwhelming popularity and influence of the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). Scattered throughout the collection are film reviews, letters congratulating Gaines on the film, call sheets, promotional materials, and other items. In this post, I would just like to highlight a couple of items from the collection to show the film's impact in 1974.

In a short documentary on the 30th anniversary of the film, the director John Korty says that after the film debuted white callers inundated radio talk shows saying, "I didn't realize. . . " in regards to the struggles that African Americans went through. Likewise, Odetta, who portrayed Big Laura, essentially voiced why Gaines decided to start writing. She says, "The book is telling me other than what I seen in movies." The film's impact could clearly be seen during the 1974 Emmy Awards where it was nominated for 12 awards and won 9 of them, including the Best Actress award fro Cicely Tyson's portrayal of Miss Jane.

To become Miss Jane, Tyson had to arrive on set at least 4 hours before her scheduled shoot time because it took 4 to 4 1/2 hours to apply the makeup that would transform her into a 110 year old woman. After shooting, Tyson would then have to endure another 2 1/2 hours of makeup removal. The picture above shows the transformation  from a 40 year old woman to a 110 year old. Along with putting on and taking off the makeup, Tyson also studied her role diligently. Korty mentions that she would visit old folk's homes and visit elderly African American women, talking with them and recording their speech. On set, as the older Miss Jane, she would act 110, having people assist her instead of walking normally. All of this led to a performance that brought Miss Jane to life.
While Tyson's preparation breathed life into Miss Jane, there were some notable difference between the film and the novel. One of these was discussed earlier. Another key difference is the ending. The book concludes with Miss Jane heading to Bayonne after Jimmy's death. In contrast, the film concludes with Miss Jane walking to the "Whites's Only" drinking fountain. This scene, as powerful as it is, does not occur in the book. Even when the film debuted in 1974, the scene's impact was almost instantaneous. Arthur Unger, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, called the final moments of the film perhaps "the most effective nine minutes [he has] ever seen in fictional film." Even the title of Unger's article shows the impact of the final scene: "110-year walk to a fountain." What makes this ending so much stronger than the one found in the novel, or does it?  In the novel, Jimmy and the other activists chose a young woman to drink from the "White's Only" fountain. They chose an Hebert girl, a mulatto, "to show the world what the South would do to a nigger-not even half nigger in the girl's case-just because she wanted a drink of water" (246). What are your memories of the film? Which ending do you prefer? As usual, let's discuss this in the comments below. 

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
Unger, Arthur. "110-year walk to a fountain." The Christian Science Moniter. [Boston, MA] 30 Jan. 1974: F6. Print.


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